It seems only fitting that with February being the first month we launch into the subsets of Ethical Non-Monogamy that we start with Polyamory.
What is Polyamory?
Ask around in Poly circles, and you will get a lot of different definitions. As in most human cultures, people tend to define their labels under their own terms, and conditions, and aren’t terribly open minded if someone else’s interpretation isn’t the same as theirs.
I tend to break it down into the most simplistic components. “Poly” – which is Greek and means “many or several” and “amor” which is Latin and means “love”. That’s it… Polyamory means many loves… thank you for playing you may now return to your regularly scheduled programming.
Just kidding…. Polyamory is so MUCH more complex than that.
Polyamory is really about focusing on multiple loving relationships where sex may or may not even be a part of the equation. There are plenty of asexual people who engage in polyamory who enjoy multiple loving relationships where sex is not a part of the deal. Similarly there are people out there who connect as friends, where sex is perhaps the primary focus, but there is still a loving friendship bond.
Polyamory to me is having the ability to define my own relationships by what me and my partner(s) want and need rather than how generational “societal norms” have guided things historically. It’s about living the life I want openly and having the individual autonomy and freedom to love myself and whoever else I choose using communication, transparency and collaboration with people important to me. – Cadie J
The majority of Polyamorous people connect with the intention of forming multiple loving partnerships, and the ways they go about it is wildly varied. We will cover many of those forms in the coming months in future installments under this series.
When and where did polyamory come to be?
While most credit the Kerista Commune for coining the term “Polyamory”, that is not actually true. The Kerista Commune was founded in 1956 by John Peltz “Bro Jud” Presmont. The concept of the Kerista Commune was a utopian community that was initially free-love swinging based on polyfidelity by means of a set of criteria that every member of the Commune was required to follow. Polyfidelity is a term coined by the Keristans that is a form of non-monogamy where all partners are considered equal and do not have sex with others outside of the group. The group’s ideals were very much that of the hippie generation of free love and autonomy, racial and sexual liberation and living in a non-conformist kind of life. The Kerista Commune started in New York, but over the course of a decade would spread to Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area.
The Kerista Commune is credited for coining the terms “polyfidelity” and “compersion” as they continued to develop a language around their unique lifestyle. They also used the term “polyintimacy” as defined in their literature that would very closely match the definition of the term Polyamory that would be officially used by Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart in an article titled “A Bouquet of Lovers”, in the May 1990 edition of Green Egg Magazine. In 2006, the term became officially entered in the Oxford English Dictionary as defined by Ms. Zell-Ravenheart as “the practice, state, or ability of having more than one sexual-loving relationship at the same time, with the full knowledge and consent of all partners involved.” So the “concept” of polyamory was developed by the Kerista Commune, but Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart gets the credit for being the first to use the actual term in a publication.
Being polyamorous has allowed my husband and I to be much more honest with each other. When everything is OK, there is no desire, no feeling that I can’t share. – Megan M
People have been quietly and secretly practicing polyamory for decades. Indeed, in some jurisdictions, the act of having multiple sexual relationships, when married partners are involved is considered adultery, and there are still archaic laws on the books where people could be charged with a crime (although these laws are almost never actually enforced). Similarly, in some more conservative jurisidictions, a cohabitating arrangement among three or more adults can still be considered polygamy, even when none of the people claim marriage rights over the others. In this there is still much work to do.
It would seem though, that the work of the LGBTQ community and its allies toward creating awareness of and fighting for gay marriage rights, and the battles we as a country have had and the ground we have gained over the last decade may have some benefits for the ENM people as well. The world in general seems to be more ready with an open mind to accept some of the more alternative lifestyles. Polyamory depicted in movies and reality television shows that are mostly cringeworthy and horrible depictions of polyamory are gaining access to modern television. While it would seem like these twisted versions of polyamory could be bad for our culture, they only help to spread awareness that modern mono-normativity is not the only way of living your life. It is creating curiosity, discussion, and acceptance that is paving the way for polyamorous people to live more in the open. It would seem that recent studies have shown that the public’s interest in CNM (consensual non-monogamy) has increased significantly as well, with literally 1 in 4 Americans having engaged in some kind of consensual non-monogamous activity, with approximately 4-5% of the population having engaged in some form of polyamorous relationship.
Even in the last 8 years, I personally have seen a change of public acceptance when I’m out with more than one of my partners. Where we used to just draw stares and odd looks, now people approach us and ask us questions, and respond with genuine curiosity and wonder. So, while it still may not be safe for you to come out into the open with your poly lifestyle… the day is coming when it is a much more broadly accepted form of relationship status.
Polyamory normalized my longstanding feelings and beliefs that never made sense by society’s standards. It allowed me to love the way I love. – Janelle L
Interestingly, it would seem that even in the growing acceptance of Polyamory as a relational form, swinging may still remain in the dark recesses of secrecy. In a study in 2013, participants were asked to read a definition of three different relationship types, Swinging, Open Relationship and Polyamory. Results showed that Swingers were overwhelmingly percieved more negatively and less moral than polyamorous relationships.
Why do people enter into Polyamory? What is the benefit?
There are perhaps as many different reasons why people enter into Polyamory as there are people who do it. For many, it’s kind of a natural progression as people are becoming more and more disillusioned with monogamy due to the widespread prevalence of cheating and divorce. For others, it’s the honesty, transparency, and communication that is so prevalent in the Poly community that is a huge draw. For others, it’s a sense of community. Poly communities (known as “polycules” or “tribes”) are often like families, that share a common bond. For others it’s the empowerment of women who seek independence and equality.
To me, polyamory is being able to love who you want, when you want, however you want. Whether it be sexual or asexual. Causal or non-casual. – Leslie Z
I think for most people though, it’s about exploration of the many different and diverse relationships that are out there. In my own experience, I get something unique and different from every single relationship I have. Each connection adds something to my life that I don’t get from any others. I find that in exploring my Polyamorous relationships with others, the connections have more meaning than my more casual sexual connections.
Many people also find that in plural relationships, they become much more effective at communicating, and in some cases, partners can help mediate situations, and help to stabilize each others’ relationships.
Poly is unselfish relationships rooted with compersion, love, friendship, communication, trust, transparency and openness for more than one person. – Tanya T
I’ve actually found that in my relationships with other more experienced poly partners, I’ve learned a lot about better communication, critical thinking, and coping skills for dealing with self esteem issues, jealousy, and insecurity, and other things that often pop up over the course of time.
In that same vein, I think that people, especially couples who enter into Polyamory, discover that they have to be more open and honest in their communication. This creates a bond of trust and acceptance that strengthens the relationship, even in times of struggle. It’s a powerful thing when you realize you can be completely honest with your partner and you trust that they will be with you as well. When they have given you everything you could want, including your freedom to seek experiences with others, why would you feel the need to lie? Many people who are well practiced at polyamory often find they have an easier time talking about difficult subjects like jealousy and insecurity issues, and safer sex practices. We’re better at being our own advocates and communicating our needs and desires.
I think that most importantly… while connecting with multiple partners, and forming multiple relationships, I’ve discovered myself. I have a much greater sense of who I am, what I am, and how I think.
How does it work? How do you connect?
I think very few people set out to create a polyamorous family. People don’t typically say… “hmm… I need more in my life, I need to go find myself a polyamorous family.” Think about it from a monogamous point of view for a moment… Since it’s what most people can relate to… Most people don’t one day realize they need a boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse, and just go out and start shopping for one, right? They may go out, alone or with friends, and meet someone… Maybe it evolves into something, maybe not. Most relationships aren’t instantaneous, they take care and nurturing, and they can flourish into something when tended. Polyamorous relationships are the same way.
Polyamory, for me, means I’ve made a deliberate choice to live a life that leaves space for how my heart has always worked. I found a community where I have not only learned to live an open, ethical life, but which holds me accountable and helps me stay in integrity with myself. This is some of the hardest work I’ve ever done, but the healthiest and most free I’ve ever been. – Aubrey M
Being polyamorous is more of a state of mind… It’s a realization that you’re open to more and that the possibilities are open. I think most polyamorous relationships start with friendships that simply evolve into more… The best ones in my opinion do. I often times find the quickest way to ensure you DON’T find poly connections, is to go looking for them. Just go out, be social, and let things evolve organically.
There are options for our more introverted folks who don’t do “social” very well. Lots of dating sites these days have non-monogamous options for what you’re seeking, and the non-monogamy community is out there and thriving… There are many opportunities for people who are looking to get to know someone before meeting them in person and avoiding the whole social scene. There are meetup groups everywhere… You only have to seek them out. The more polyamorous people come out of the woodwork, the more opportunities there are to meet and connect.
What do polyamorous relationships look like?
Polyamorous relationships can take on many different forms and configurations, but they all fit under the same few philosophies.
- Kitchen Table Polyamory: KTP is the philosophy of the polycule being something of a tight knit family. It is literally the concept of all of the meta’s and partners in a polycule literally being close enough friends that they could all sit around a kitchen table for discussions and meals. (and quite often do)
- Parallel Polyamory: is almost the antithesis of KTP. People who engage in parallel polyamory are of the frame of mind where they really don’t care to ever meet or interact with their metamours.
- Relationship Anarchy: Relationship Anarchists view relationships as being independent of each other. They tend to reject the notions of hierarchy and embrace personal autonomy. There is discussion going on as to whether or not RA is even a philosophy of Polyamory, but because it relates to people and how they engage in emotionally connected non-monogamous relationships, we’re going to include it here. This is a topic we will cover in greater detail in its own ENM installment in a future issue.
- Solo-Poly: Solo Poly is how most single people identify as Polyamorous. The distinction in Solo-Poly is that most SP’s do not fit into anyone’s hierarchy. They tend to live independently of their partners, and prefer to not cohabitate with any of them. Many SP’s subscribe to Relationship Anarchy philosophies.
Within these constructs you will find a variety of different connection types. Some people connect in various forms of dyadic connections, strictly one on one relationships that exist simultaneously with others. A lot of Solo-Poly relationships and all Relationship Anarchist relationships are this way.
Love is infinite and shouldn’t be rationed – Shannon L
In most cases, both partners are non-monogamous and have other partners, but there are also cases of couplings that are considered mono-poly, where one partner is monogamous with a partner that has other poly connections.
There are also situations where three people may connect in relationships that form a Triad or a Poly V. A Poly V is where there are two diadic couplings with one shared partner (sometimes called the pivot or the anchor partner) Alternatively a Triad is where there are three partners all of which have relationships with each other which may or may not be fully equal in terms of sexual or emotional connection. These relationships are most commonly two female partners with one male partner, but are certainly not limited to that arrangements, Triads and V’s that have two male partners with one female partner are not uncommon. It is also possible to have a Triad or V in a same sex arrangement.
A poly quad may consist of four individual and independent people, but it is most common that it consists of two couples. Some quads are closed, meaning that the people involved do not seek relationships outside of the quad dynamic. Others are open, allowing for the partners to add to their polycule with outside connections that may vary in quantity and configuration. Typically Quad arrangements are hetero and dyadic in nature, but there are also opportunities for bisexual partners as well.
In most cases where poly-arrangements are not closed, as you move outward the various connections start to form a polycule. A polycule looks almost exactly as it sounds. With each person having multiple connections that may or may not intersect with other partners in the larger community. Some polycules are smaller than others, some are huge. Some are closed by agreement, others are open, and just exist naturally and organically.
Love is Infinite… Time is Not…
A long held philosophy of Polyamorous people is the concept of love being infinite, but time and energy are not. Think about it… when you had your second child, does the love you have for the second child diminish the love you have for the first? If you don’t have children, you can apply this logic to pets or parents too. We as humans have infinite reserves of love to give other people.
As humans we are slaves to time. Time and energy are resources we have a finite amount of. Think about it… we’ve all had times where we’ve come home from a long day at work and just flopped down on the couch, and had zero energy to get up and do anything… right?
With relationships we have to be mindful of these things… It’s easy to get caught up in the hunt for NRE and over extend ourselves, to where we are over-spending our time and energy levels. This results in an inability to fully give ourselves to any of our partners, thus taking away time and energy from the existing partners. This is a balance that few people ever truly master, but Polyamorous people must constantly evaluate and adjust themselves in this way.
Part of the draw of Polyamorous relationships, lies in the open communication, honesty, and integrity that connecting with intention brings to the equation. Polyamory in and of itself thrives on the integrity involved, and that alone makes it ethical. There are places where people get tripped up sometimes so I want to be sure to cover a few things to ensure that we get people on the right path.
In any form of ENM, it is vital that all parties involved have equal rights and liberties. What is good for one should be good for all. Double standards, regardless of intention whether agreed upon or not are not ethical behavior and should not be imposed or allowed in your relationships. While this can raise its ugly head in any form of polyamorous relationship, it is most frequently seen in mono-poly relationships and triadic relationships, where there is “unicorn hunter” behavior involved. OPP (One Penis Policy) is the devil… and implies that women are somehow inferior to men and cannot make decisions about their own bodies, or that they are less desirable if they have sex outside of the male dominated relationship environment (Slut shaming). Lesser heard of, but the opposite is also toxic. A dominant female in a relationship that is holding her partner’s intimate desires hostage while feeding her own, is just as unethical. The reality is, most people who are successful at Polyamory recognize the need to deal with their feelings of jealousy and insecurity and have the tools to cope with them… It’s simply a matter of whether or not they choose to exercise dignity and respect toward their partners or whether they would rather try to control their partners behavior to soothe their fears. While most people are not born with these tools, successful Poly partners develop them through lines of open communication and respect, and through opportunities for learning and practice.
Recognizing and setting good personal boundaries and agreements is another trait that most succesful Polyamorous people have. Even more important, being able to communicate and process through when those boundaries and agreements are broken, is a vital skill that most Poly people develop pretty quickly.
As you are probably starting to see… communication is the most effective tool that most successful Polyamorous people possess. This is why fidelity and loyalty are such important attributes to Poly relationships. In this case, fidelity does not mean sexual or relational exclusivity, rather it is more about the way we adhere to and respect our agreements, and our partners. In this way, “Don’t ask, don’t tell” relationships are not really considered ethical in Polyamory because they violate the majority of the core principles of Polyamory. Similarly, it is actually possible to “cheat” in Poly relationships by having relations with people in secret and failing to disclose to your other partners.
While it has been around for a very long time, Polyamory is quickly becoming the most embraced of the alternative lifestyle movement. With so many different variations and options for how one can go about it, there is a relationship style to fit almost anyone’s particular needs. When engaged in ethically, Polyamory offers a great deal of freedom and liberty for those who practice it, and the rewards are beyond imagining, when you start to see the improvements of your feelings of self, and the improvements in your relationships with others.